In the spring of 1971, Brian Wilson ordered his gardener to dig his grave; he contemplated driving his Rolls off the Santa Monica pier. Standing on the beach, Wilson stared into the Pacific and pondered his insignificance. “I’m a cork on the ocean,” he wrote in “’Til I Die,” rendering that emotional moment in song. After Wilson presented the tune to the rest of the Beach Boys, Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine scoffed at the downer. In his 1991 autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, Wilson recalls that exchange. “We make upbeat albums,” Love said. “That’s what our fans like.” Wilson recorded the song alone. Due to a shortage of material, it made the Surf’s Up album. It would be Wilson’s last overwhelmingly brilliant song.
In the 37 years since, a damaged and depleted Wilson has seemingly striven to deliver “what Beach Boy fans like”—at least in Love’s estimation. When Wilson’s team of handlers and studio ringers stare at the ocean, they see only surfer girls and sunshine. But on That Lucky Old Sun, Wilson’s lyrics, in spots, finally shine a flashlight on the darker recesses of his memory. On “Midnight’s Another Day,” he croons with his broken voice, “Took the dive, but couldn’t swim… Took the diamond from my soul / and turned it back into coal.”
The problems here, again, reside in the backdrop—the session players are leading the sessions. Members of the obscure L.A. power-pop act the Wondermints continue their collaboration, which began with Wilson on his Pet Sounds comeback tour at the turn of the millennium. Session rat and seasoned jingle veteran Scott Bennett also has his hands deep in the project: cowriting, coproducing, coarranging and comixing. It’s remarkable that these Beach Boys geeks focus on just re-creating a narrow sliver of the Boys’ oeuvre and yet completely miss the mark of the mature Beach Boys spark. The slick pros overplay, in traditional rock arrangements, with a token woodblock or chime thrown in for a pinch of Copland’s Americana. Loaded with puppy-dog love and hot-rod hokum, the music on Sun sounds composed by Beach Boy detractors —like a late-night comedy-show band, as if Paul Shaffer covered Pet Sounds. Those original recordings were plush, not punchy; lush, not Jerry Lee Lewis–y.
Bennett should know better; he played bass on the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin—a record that critics compared to the Beach Boys, and not because of doo-wop harmonies and tunes about hangin’ ten. No, the inspired disciples of Wilson make depression sound like bliss and the avant-garde sound harmonious. The Beach Boys’ most beautiful moments came from realizing one’s insignificance, not from stroking one’s genius.